Interview by Morgan Baker
In Blade in The Shadow, Jillian Halket dives deep into her relationship with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, her sexual abuse, alcoholism, and how so much of her life—her relationships with friends and family—was directly affected by OCD. For most of her life—she is 28—she didn’t know why she had devastating thoughts.
Halket’s book explains, from a personal perspective, what having OCD is like—debilitating. She distinguishes what the illness is—intrusive thoughts that mess with your sense of reality, and the need to do compulsions that can take time and energy away from your real life—with what your life really is. But, in the world of OCD, magical thinking makes you think doing the compulsions will keep the thoughts away. Being diagnosed in her mid 20s, was a relief. While OCD can’t be cured, it can be managed, especially if you work with a therapist and learn certain techniques.
The book is validating for anyone who has any experience with OCD, whether as an individual, friend or family member. It is also great to read to get an inside look at what happens to someone who is ill with the disorder.
Jillian Halket is a disabled writer from Blackwood, Scotland. She’s an advocate for OCD awareness and recovery and was proud to take part in the first Activate Training for Movement for Change, a grassroots campaign by See Me Scotland. Find her on Twitter or her website.
I spoke with Halket from Scotland, where she grew up and now lives with her partner, about the content of her memoir and her writing process.
Morgan Baker: Who did you write this book for?
Jillian Halket: Initially, it was for myself, just trying to make sense of a few of those difficult years of my life. But then, as I was writing I started seeing a lot of things about OCD in the media—a lack of representation. There have been a lot of misconceptions around it still, and I felt some anger. People were still saying “Oh, I’m so OCD” or using negative language. I had productive anger. If I can turn the page or shift the cultural conversation on something (OCD) and if I could add my little bit to the conversation—that’s what was driving me.
MB: It makes great sense that you started it for yourself. As I read it, I was amazed with the honesty. I kept thinking, Oh my God, she’s really putting herself out there. How did that feel?
JH: The things that I thought would worry me about writing about intrusive thoughts and stuff, was fine, but things like familial relationships were the difficult parts for me. There’s stuff about a particular family member in it…the intrusive thoughts and even sexual assault doesn’t bother me, but stuff about the family. That stuff I was worried about.
MB: Early in the book you talk a bit about living and dying—that you go to bed every night and it’s like you die and then you wake up.
Every night I die.
The ephemeral hours of night break and dawn bleeds in. The dream slows–the fabric of one strange reality unthreading, desperately trying to stitch itself to another. My fingers trace the line of my skull and pause at the hollows of my eyes. I move my hands over my cotton underwear and feel the curve of my body.
I’m still here.
JH—I opened the book that way because I wanted you to spend the morning with me. I want you to see the side of things from my perspective. The second line about the dawn in there is about joy and recovery.
MB: You are very honest about both your mother, father and stepfather, who I think is named Jim. I liked him a lot.
JH: Yeah, he’ll be so happy. It’s good to have a bit of stepdad representation.
MB: There was something that Jim said in the book about the ties that bind?
JH: When people say ‘blood is thicker than water,’ they’re saying that blood is the thing that’s most important, but it gets misunderstood a lot. The phrase is ‘Blood of the Covenant is thicker than water of the womb,’ so our biological ties are perhaps not as strong as going through struggle and strife, with your created family, you know? That is so freeing in a way. If people hurt you, they don’t necessarily have the right to be in your life anymore.
MB: What would be your advice to young essayists writing about family?
JH: It’s a tricky one, isn’t it? Because the first part of me wants to say, make sure it’s safe for you. But on the flip side, if they are in a position where they can write and they do have a bit of hesitation, it’s almost like you should be writing about what you’re a little bit afraid of. I think it’s important if you are feeling vulnerable and a bit frightened—that’s the stuff you need to be writing. You need to get out there because I bet so many other people will be thinking the same and going through the same. I wish your students luck.
I think it’s important if you are feeling vulnerable and a bit frightened—that’s the stuff you need to be writing
MB: I think that’s great advice about the family and the vulnerability. In terms of structuring the book, how did you come to the structure you did and how long did it take you to write the book?
JH: With my OCD, my concentration isn’t always there, so I tend to work in little spurts. If I wake up in the morning and I have a wee bit of energy, and mental acuity to do something, I do. But I would say the bulk of the book was written last year in 2020 during the pandemic. There were little lines and passages that I would scribble down because I wanted to remember how this feels, whether it’s on the side of illness, or the side of recovery.
The version I sent out to publishers and such, I think it was about 80,000 words. When I sent it to Guts Publishing, my publisher, they said ‘this is great, but after the first chapter, the reader loses a bit of interest, can you try again?’ I was reading their books…I went back and I started chopping bits out and started streamlining it and distilling it and that became the condensed version. I have a habit of talking about trees too much and stuff. My editor was like, ‘you have one tree description, that’s all you need, get back to what it’s about.’
MB: So how many words is the book now?
JH: It’s 44,000 words now. It’s more novella length now than novel. But I think for the story, it works. It’s shorter and a bit sharper. I think with memoir, you don’t need to start with a structure, you just write bits and pieces and see how it develops and grows from there. It’s giving yourself permission to suck. Just write and go for it and you can clean it up later. I really enjoyed the editing process actually.
MB: What did you enjoy about it?
JH: When you’re drafting you’re like getting a piece of marble and bashing it about, but when you get to the editing stage, you’re finally chiseling. I got to make sure the sentences worked and the voice was there. It was really fun because it felt like the bulk of the work was done as well. It was playtime.
MB: You had a long history of OCD without knowing what it was. One of the things I both admired and was awed by was the honesty with which you presented your OCD and that you shared what your intrusive thoughts were. What made you feel safe enough to put it all out there like that?
JH: I would say, I have the privilege of having therapy and being in a place where it was okay. It wouldn’t have been possible In 2016 or 2017 when I was I was still working on my recovery. I could write about understanding how my own particular obsessions and compulsions are working. And avoidance is such a big compulsion for me. E.R.P. is such wonderful therapy because of those endless cycles. [ERP—Exposure Response Prevention where patients put themselves in a situation that causes great anxiety and wait it out until the feeling dissipates.]
I think the more we talk about it and share it, the more we can defang the vampire of OCD. Do you know what I mean?
I think the more we talk about it and share it, the more we can defang the vampire of OCD.
MB: I’m going back to the beginning about misinformation about OCD. What do you say to somebody who says ‘I’m so OCD because I clean a lot.’ What’s your response when someone says something like that?
JH: We need more people to talk about it. If we look back at the language we used around depression and stuff—oh just go for a walk and you’ll be fine. No, that’s not going to work. Hopefully the same thing will happen with OCD that it is more understood.
It’s not in the book, but my sister said it was okay to say she has OCD as well. She was diagnosed just a couple of years ago, in 2019. So that was interesting because her obsessions are so different.
I would never be like ‘I know better,’ but just be gentle, this is perhaps not what OCD, the clinical term, looks like. I think if you approach it that way, people could be quite receptive. An example of cleanliness, untidiness, but OCD is actually a disorder people really suffer with intrusive thoughts and it can lead to all sorts of things. I think people don’t realize the severity.
MB: Reading your book, was really validating for me to hear somebody talk in such a frank manner. I think there’s a lot of shame with any mental illness.
JH: I got an email from a woman in her 70s and she had it her whole life, not knowing what was going on in her head was OCD. I was so happy that she said, ‘reading your article and your book, I discovered that me and my daughter have this’, and now she can have chats with her daughter. The more we share and talk about this, it can only do good.
MB: You talk about the difference between OCD and reality. Those two can feel like they’re one and the same, but they’re really not.
JH: Particularly when you’re unwell, I think with OCD, sometimes it takes the things you love the most and turns them in the most horrible way, like with my family and my partner. The fear was so real, you don’t only have the mental stuff but your body goes through the same physical symptoms of adrenaline and cortisol going up. It’s all connected. It’s difficult to parse out when you’re in a delusional state. Try to center yourself. Use whatever techniques you have, access your support network. I honestly feel for every single person going through it.
MB: I learned a lot in here—about the different themes OCD can focus on, like contamination, violence and sexual thoughts. There are others too, what are they?
JH: There is Relationship OCD—a person’s worried that perhaps they’re not in love with their partner. They’re second guessing their motivation. You ask ‘Are you angry at me, are you angry at me?’
There’s contamination OCD where you worry about spoilage. I thought everyone had this.
There is also religious OCD…it’s different but similar in that there are intrusive thoughts and we’re carrying out behaviors. There’s magical thinking that you think something is going to happen, and then the compulsions to keep things from happening. I had to separate spirituality and OCD.
OCD is not in line with a person’s morality and it says nothing about you. If you have it, you’re not bad. At least the people I’ve met with OCD have quite a high level of conscientiousness …for people who are saying ‘oh I’m so OCD’—you’re not because those sorts of cleanliness [routines] are not harming yourself. You are not washing your hands to the point where you’ve got cuts. You might know it’s illogical but you can’t get out of it.
MB: I think the book is validating for readers who either have OCD or know someone who does.
JH: That means so much to me because I know when my mom and I were going through it, we were looking for stuff and trying to find our way. It can be quite difficult to get the information and the help you need.
MB: It seems that when you were going through some of the worst times, you had and still have a mother who was supportive.
JH: She’s just the best. She’s just wonderful, and I’m lucky to have her, even though both of us didn’t know what was going on. She was there steadfast and supportive. I think the only thing that saddened her was that a lot of the times I wasn’t able to be honest with her about what was happening. That was me, not her, not knowing what was going on and being frightened.
MB: There’s a scene where you go to your mom, it’s late in the book, and you both want the reaffirming thing and she wants to give it to you, but she says, ‘No I can’t.’ You’re saying, ‘no I can’t ask, I shouldn’t be here.’ The tug and pull and the love is so powerful. Maybe because I’m a mom, but I was thinking how much I respected her and appreciated her care for you.
JH: I can’t imagine being a mum when your child has something like that. It’s interesting because there’s that sort of a level of reassurance that’s a healthy level—it is the most natural thing in the world for a mum to give her child reassurance but I needed more. I ask my partner ‘can I get a bit of girlfriend reassurance,’ which is about like normal stuff.
I wanted people to know that things don’t have to stay where they are…
MB: You talk in the book about hope. Can you tell me a little bit about hope and how it’s affected you and how—when you are in a bad place, how do you hold on to hope?
JH: I think it’s quite interesting because when people start the book, they think, ‘oh it’s a bit dark,’ which I think is funny because that’s just the way my brain works. I say, ‘just keep reading, because I’m a very optimistic person. There’s a lot of joy in my life, but I think that’s most people—a combination of light and dark, so I really wanted to have the theme of hope in the book.
I wanted people to know that things don’t have to stay where they are…I was suicidal and then 7 months later, I met the person I’m supposed to be with. If you’re in that horrible dark place, it won’t be like that forever. If you can just hold on. Something my mum has said, you don’t know how quickly things can change. So, any little thing you can do to get through the day—watch a show, look outside, have a cup of tea, a chat. I just want people to hold on. We’ve already lost so many people to this. If people can’t get to therapy, I recommend a book called The Happiness Trap. You just don’t know what someone else is going through. You have no idea what someone else is struggling with, so treat everyone with kindness.
The main thing I would say to someone who’s going through this is you’re not your thoughts. You’re not a bad person because you’re having these thoughts. Reach out to someone—a family member, friend or teacher—anyone you feel comfortable talking to. I really hope that people get in contact with their doctor. People don’t put mental illnesses on the same level as physical illnesses. If you had diabetes, you would take your diabetes medication.
I would say to the people that are taking care of the person with OCD, put your own life mask on. Before you care for the other person, make sure you are well also. Don’t help them with their compulsions. It might be hard, but ultimately will do them good.
MB: How did you find the courage to be so vulnerable?
JH: I don’t know. I think there was a wee bit of like I would love it if people understood me, but this is what I go through, please, please, do not judge it or belittle it. I think people can tell when you’re holding back. It’s about connection, I just didn’t want to feel strange and lonely anymore.
MB What do you want to work on next?
JH: I have a couple of ideas written down. I’m just getting back to the joy of writing.
Morgan Baker is an essayist and feature writer. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Boston Globe Magazine, Talking Writing, The Brevity Nonfiction Blog, Cognoscenti, The Bark, Motherwell, and multiple alumni magazines and anthologies. She teaches at Emerson College and is the Managing Editor at thebucket.com where she has published both essays and feature pieces. After a year in Hawaii, she is back in Cambridge with her husband and two Portuguese Water Dogs and she is revising her memoir about her empty nest.